These days, the broadcast networks are thinking in years, not seasons. Which is why the Big Four are spending May cozying up to advertisers for fall shows, while their marketers lure viewers with hot summer titles.
Somewhere in the middle, a clash occurs.
How do you pitch fall when you are busy priming audiences for summer? For most of the networks, it's a delicate balancing act. Summer gets the push; fall promos arrive as appropriate.
For example, ABC was expected to promote David E. Kelley's new legal series during the close of The Practiceon May 16. CBS will promote CSI: New York everywhere, but particularly during CSIand CSI: Miami, its popular predecessors. The goal is to keep summer's lineup fresh, preventing a viewer exodus to cable.
"Summer is the most competitive it's ever been," says ABC Senior Vice President of Marketing Mike Benson. "Everyone is coming on strong because they know this has become a nonstop, year-round business. If you have an opportunity to get a rating, you have to go there."
Still, the networks need to keep their eyes on fall.
"I don't think the networks should or will hold off on fall promos," says Steve Sternberg, executive vice president, director of audience analysis at Interpublic Group's Magna Global USA. "The real problem is coverage. With new summer series, so much reality on in the summer, and some buzz generated by cable programs, the consumer press and syndicated magazine shows don't focus on the fall season as much as they used to."
Last year, the broadcast networks starting pushing fall shows once the upfronts ended—and the season was flat. With summer more important than ever, look for broadcast marketers to target their timing with precision.
"The networks need to come up with novel ways to promote new series," Sternberg says, "rather than relying on their own air."
ABC's summer is top-heavy with comedies, particularly According to Jim, My Wife and Kids, George Lopez, and Hope & Faith—with the Summer of a Billion Laughs campaign culminating in the Pepsi Play for a Billion contest on Sept. 12. In concert with Pepsi, ABC will plug its lineup on more than a billion packs of soda.
"This promotion is going to help us drive tune-in for seven signature comedies," says Benson, "with the hope we can create a few hits over the summer."
Fox is showcasing the launch of its full summer season with six shows on the schedule. "As much as people are used to seeing new shows in the summer," says Senior Vice President of Marketing Roberta Mell, "to have a whole new season is something new."
To highlight this distinction, Fox deliberately chose unconventional places to pique viewer interest, such as ESPN. Six shows air this summer: Simple Life 2, The Casino, The Jury, North Shore, Method & Red, and Quintuplets.
Fox is taking much of its marketing off-air and taking advantage of a new marketing technique called "paid search." The goal is to reach potential viewers via the Internet. The network will attach promotional material to search terms users might type in on Yahoo! or Google.
If someone types in "Paris Hilton," one of The Simple Life's stars, several related promo pages pop up. For Simple Life 2, pink tire tracks will show up for a few days, followed by a dog in a car the next week, until Internet ads for the show, which premieres Wednesday June 16, appear.
"You pay as you go, paying as people click-through," Mell says. "Every impression you get is worth it. You can't get any more targeted than people typing in Paris Hilton."